Old fear of autonomy debate
The goras or firingis who ruled over large parts of the subcontinent for centuries often appear to browns as an undifferentiated mass. That there are different shades of goras too should have been apparent from Ireland, long a part of the ‘United’ Kingdom and yearning equally long to be free from being ruled from London. The Irish proclaimed a Republic in 1916, carried on an armed struggle against the London government from 1919 to 1921 that ended with the British government forced to sign a treaty leading to the formation of the Irish Free State. A new constitution was put to a public referendum and was ratified by the people. Those Irish who were London loyalists managed to secede from the Irish Free State and continue to remain a part of the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland.
Our subcontinent has not been that fortunate. In 1943, when Subhash Chandra Bose proclaimed a provisional government of Free India called Hukumat-e-Azad Hind, brown loyalists of the crown were active in the British war-effort while calculating their share of future power. When Subhash Chandra Bose was leading a fighting force against the British, a leading Congress politician announced, ‘If Subhash would bring soldiers from outside and enter India, then I would be the first person to take sword in hand and oppose him.’ This person was to become the first Prime Minister of the Indian Union. No wonder that the Irish Free State was formed on the basis of a treaty between the Irish and the British while the formation Indian Union was not the product of any treaty between browns and the British. The British did a transfer of power to the type of chosen browns they could continue to deal with. This transfer of power has been sold as the end-point of a struggle for independence. Brown loyalists got better dividends – they didn’t have to secede. They inherited the empire. The Indian Union constitution has never been put to a public referendum. This is true for all the constitutions of Pakistan, Bangladesh and other post-colonial fragments of the British Empire in India.
But these are different times. The unity of the United Kingdom itself seems to be at stake with the independence referendum for Scotland scheduled to take place on 18th September. If the ‘Yes’ campaign wins, Scotland will secede from the United Kingdom. The referendum is not some illegal activity but has official sanction from Elizabeth II, the Queen of United Kingdom. Given the long association between England and Scotland, by favour and colonial spoils-sharing, there is a class in Scotland that looks to London and are Trojan horses in the political arena. The threat from many British companies to move away from Scotland if it secedes should act as a warning for all who think that money has no colour, be it from Delhi or Nagpur or London. Headquarters matter. Many English and loyalist Scottish politicians are camping in Scotland campaigning strongly for the ‘No’ side. They have an advantage as a large section of the electorate is neither Scottish nor were they born in Scotland. Most opinion polls show that the No-campaign has a slight advantage.
Autonomy, referendum – these are bad words in regimes which steam-roll diversity in the name of unity. The deep-state in such regimes may build whatever democratic façade they might want to build but the real power lies in the mechanisms in which power is rationed out. Thus it is heartening to see that the contest in Scotland around the issue of independence is not being fought by militarization, army-roads, strip-searches, encounters, kidnappings, ‘friendly’ football and forced renditions of national anthems but by a debate around ideas of nationhood, autonomy, jobs, economy and future dreams.
In 1963, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was forced to drop its demand for a sovereign Dravida Nadu free from North-Indian domination in politics and culture after the parliament at New Delhi declared secessionism as illegal by a constitutional amendment. The Scottish National Party (SNP), which is spearheading the ‘Yes’ Independence campaign, is a legal political party in the United Kingdom. This means that in this case the system holds democracy to be superior to ideology. It acknowledges that those parts of the political spectrum that hold views against the unity of a nation-state are not lesser people whose voices need to be silenced so that the unity-ideology may be victorious. There are subtler ways to ensure that. It also shows that people’s voice and not people’s silence are the units of democratic contestation.
Scotland already has a lot of freedom in decision-making in a lot of matters but many crucial matters are controlled by the powers at London. This includes oil and minerals, which is Scotland’s wealth that is controlled by London. The case for Scotland’s independence is not only an ethnic demand but a demand for a people to be freed from the kind of policy environment that London has created for Scotland. Pro-Yes Scots want a socially-humane state with a strong safety net provided by revenues generated from Scotland. The now-marginalized languages of the Scottish people called Scottish Gaelic and Scots can only thrive again when freed from English domination. People with dignity have more linguistic rights than speaking English with a ‘Scottish’ accent. Language is not merely a method of communication, but a repository of aspirations and dreams. Future dreams of freedom-loving people cannot be best dreamt in the language of the rulers from London.
Every nation has a right to self-determination and no people can be told that you are not a nation, just because there may be fantasies of over-arching mythical nationhood. The ‘British’ was such an overarching term, most powerful in its heyday and now gasping for meaning beyond English-ness. That is the fate of many holy cows that are kept away from public debate by holy-cow-friendly propaganda and if that fails to keep a psychological grip, state violence follows. But make no mistake - every holy cow is a topic that cannot be discussed, that is shoved under the carpet and hence an issue that is real and pervasive.
Freedom and democracy are words that evoke paranoia among those who are anxious that the unity of their domain may be more artificial than organic and some of the marginalized people may start taking the word Swaraj seriously. Territorial maps of nation-states become real things in our heads, giving near-divine status to the visible lines on paper and screen and invisible lines on the earth. At certain moments, when these lines threaten to change, the non-divine nature of these lines becomes clear.
Any multi-national state that has distinct peoples with ideologies will have diverging political aspirations. It is upto the centralized political dispensation of the day to work out how the Baloch or the Larma or the Mizo may live, speak and dream freely in Balochistan, Rangamati and Aizawl. A federal democratic set-up sees this challenge as strength and lets each achieve the best it can, in its own trajectory. A federation is an enabler, not an hindrance, of achieving aspirations. The longer the list of things that is controlled by the centre exclusively or concurrently, the more undemocratic a regime is. Parts can disagree on issues and go their own way and that is a good thing – friendship is the bedrock of federalism, a parent-child relationship is not. Thus, London has now understood that even if ‘Yes’ fails this time, power devolution cannot be stopped. As Scotland votes, people from Catalonia to Kurdistan to Jaffna are watching, waiting for their chance. States that fear hues beyond its national colours probably have much crime to cover-up under their national flags. If nation-states are ‘imagined communities’, reimagining is no crime.